If you’re always scouring the Best/Worst book lists for more recommendations to exponentially increase the length of your to-be read pile, then you’ll love Cannonball Read: an annual, memorial book challenge that asks participants to read and review 52 (or 26 or 13) books in the memory of the late, great Pajiban AlabamaPink. Bonus, CBR does all of this while fundraising for the American Cancer Society. Sign up for 2022’s Cannonball Read 14, and you too can stick it to cancer, one book at a time.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone - it’s the irony of this little book that it’s easy accessibility and short, wonderful sentences are also philosophically charged and a thousand layers deep in meaning. It’s narrative poetry at its best, and a love story built in nothing but words. Only one time do the characters even touch each other, and yet the whole of their rise and fall and rise again pulls at the heartstrings and makes you root for them. Forget about Romeo and Juliet; Shakespeare’s got nothing on El-Mohtar and Gladstone. This story is the rawest form of love.
The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History, Immigrants, women, & African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle by Margaret S. Creighton - Her book, like all good history, explores not just the isolated three days, but the societal norms, practices, and overarching culture of the pre-Civil War years that led not just to the war, but to the collective thoughts and traditions that create the choices people made, and why they felt the way they did. She also goes beyond the war itself to reach out through Reconstruction and into the modern era to bring a sense of understanding as to how we got here. In these adjective times, this book felt, if not exactly like a balm or an answer, then at least a bit like a roadmap that says “ah, that’s where the wrong turn went.”
Real by Carol Cujec & Peyton Goddard - This book is a reminder at how easy it is for even the most well-intentioned of us to brush aside those who are differently abled based squarely on how they look and act, instead of diving deeply and approaching them with equitability. The even more amazing thing about this book was the author bios at the end, where you realize that this is based on the true-life story of Peyton Goddard. While the book would have been a must-read for me anyway just based on the incredible details and storytelling, knowing that this was really someone’s personally lived story made it an even more important read for me.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Bram Stoker, edited by Jan Needle - In typical Victorian writing style, the story meanders around where the baddies are ‘bad’ and the goodies are ‘good,’ and there’s no clear motivation or complications plaguing the characters other than the plot itself. We never fully understand why exactly Dracula wants to move to England or why he only seems to turn young women. We have no idea what motivates him to imprison Jonathan Harker in Transylvania or why Minna is his victim. It’s just plot, plot, plot.
“There is so much that I want to tell you about this book, but I won’t. I took so many notes, and placed so many scraps of paper between pages, but I do not want to ruin a single realization for you. Rebecca Makkai has crafted an intricately woven tapestry that you have to witness in its full glory; I do not want to give you a magnifying glass before you have had a chance to first witness the enormity of the project. The Great Believers hits hard and strikes deep. It overflows with righteous anger, hopeless love, and effervescent hope.”
I still think about this one and immediately tears spring from my eyes.
Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman - every time I remember this book I am thrown into fits of rage. You find a long-lost secret diary full of MURDER and INTRIGUE and then read it SLOWLY, over WEEKS, despite dedicating your life to the subject???
I found solace in some comic friends: Nimona would make an excellent foil/friend for the Giant Days crew.
Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman - I struggled through about 60% of this one for my book club—which was more than most people managed. This is apparently a classic, but it was very much not for me. Fantasy set on a super futuristic society with vampires and a quest that makes no sense. Also, the only interesting character (the only female character!) got her memory wiped about 10% into this book which removed all her skills and only turned her into a plot vehicle and, at many points, obstacle. The rest of the book—at least from what I read—is a dick-measuring contest between a vampire and a super boring hyper-masculine hero.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi - Gyasi follows two half-sisters born in Ghana in the 1700s and their parallel paths and descendants through eight generations, from Africa all the way to the United States. It is wildly creative and deftly weaves these characters into history as we see their lives unfold, and how they are all still connected to their origins.
House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune - If you are looking for something uplifting, fun, and funny, look no further than this charming tale of orphans, hope, and oh yeah, superpowers.
Untamed by Glennon Doyle - I’m sure there will be people who do not enjoy this book, but if you are a woman between the ages of 25 and still alive, I think you could find value in it. In a way, this book broke my brain. It cracked me open to ideas about how the world works, and what it means to be a woman navigating the modern world.
The Southern Book Clubs Guide to Slaying Vampires by Brady Hendrix - The women are weak caricatures. The men are buffoon caricatures. The vampire is a cowboy caricature. The non-white characters are token magical caricatures. This reads like a Stephen King book, but one of the ones that he wrote with all the cocaine, like Tommyknockers, or the worst written parts of It. The blurb of this book is great, but the delivery left me wanting.
Battle of the Butts: The Science Behind Animal Behinds by Jocelyn Rish - I mean it talks about KILLER BUTTS!!!! How can you NOT love that?
Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?! by Sophie Escabasse - It was better than the first.
Rabbits by Terry Miles - This is not a favorite as it is a five, but because of how it made me think. It also was not my usual book, therefore, it was one I had to invest in. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage was the same way.
Astro Mouse and Light Bulb vs the Troublesome 4 by Fermin Solis - There might have been another one I disliked more, but if there is I must have blanked it out.
Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
The Decay Of The Angel (The Sea of Fertility Book 4) by Yukio Mishima
The Graft by Martina Cole
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend - I am so happy I picked up this series this year. It’s one of my favorites, and manage to get other coworkers hooked on it too!
Real by Carol Cujec and Peyton Goddard - A fantastic book I recommend to everyone, especially in schools!
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake - A nice wholesome read!
The “Wonderful” Wizard of Futher-Mucking Oz by Matt Youngmark - This was just bad.
Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O’Farrell - A really beautiful novel about grief.
Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story by Erin French - Brilliant memoir by founder of The Lost Kitchen. I knew nothing about her or about her restaurant but her story of dealing with emotionally abusive relationships, addiction, recovery and more is incredible.
The Notebook trilogy by Agota Kristof - A bit of a cheat here because this is three books and you really need to read all three to appreciate the brilliance of the overall story, but all three are excellent. They deal with WWII and its aftermath as seen through the lives of twins who became separated.
Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella - Ugh. Just watch the movie Field of Dreams, which took the good bits and cut the rest.
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman - I adore Tess and I can’t say enough good things about Hartman’s writing. I love this book!
Boom Town by Sam Anderson - I would have never expected that a history of Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma City Thunder would end up in my top 3, but this book was endlessly fascinating.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas - Delightful from start to finish.
Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon - My only DNF of the year. Violent, boring, way too long.
Hi, I’m an Atheist!: What that means and how to talk about it with others by David G. McAfee - This is my worst book of the year because it could do real harm. There is a lot a good advice out there about how to have a productive conversation on issues where you fundamentally disagree with the person you are talking to. David McAfee has read none of that advice.
Sunshine by Robin McKinley - Cinnamon rolls. Not to my taste.
I would also rank City of Brass, but don’t have four ‘best’ slots and I haven’t finished the book yet! My ‘worst’ was not a terrible book by any means - I was fortunate not to read anything too terrible this year.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn - The best memoir I’ve ever read. Blunt, funny, and heartbreaking all rolled together. Flynn is also a poet, and you can tell.
The Plague by Albert Camus - I love Camus with all my heart, and aside from his essays, I think this is my favorite of his works. Not to mention how apt it is in these times. Camus nails the emotional and psychological aspects of the plague, and the different characters’ ways of coping.
Judas by Jeff Loveness and Jakub Rebelka - This brief graphic novel about Judas Iscariot dug deep into me. The art is spare and disturbing and the perspective on Judas fascinating.
Later by Stephen King - I love me some Stephen King, but boy did I not like this book.
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers - Record of a Spaceborn Few fed my soul, it is all about hope and connection. Chambers tells the story of the Exodus fleet, the homesteader ships that left Earth centuries ago in search of a new home for humans. She takes the minutiae of their lives (an interesting read all by itself, I didn’t struggle as others did with the feeling of a slow start) and weaves with them a tapestry of the human condition, of the struggle to find purpose, to know what our purpose even is, to find meaning in our lives both individually and in community.
All the Feels by Olivia Dade - Last year I read and loved Spoiler Alert and was excited to see that there would be another book in the universe. All the Feels takes everything I loved about the first book and deepens it, makes it stronger and better. A truly lovely read that made me laugh and swoon in equal measure.
The Searcher by Tana French - I’m sure someone is going to write an absolute stunning thesis on what French accomplishes in this book. The Searcher is full of morally ambiguous characters and their actions that leave you ruminating, but that’s a good thing. I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent reading, and thinking about what I read and how it felt.
Pirate Stew by Neil Gaiman - This one annoyed me. It should be a fun little tale of pirates, flying ships, doughnut feasts and magical stew but it falls flat. For me, the real problem of this book was Neil Gaiman’s rhyming text. It did nothing to hold my attention, and the worst sin of all had me thinking of other options for the couplets. I think I know what Gaiman was after (pirates are an unruly bunch after all) but it had me itching to skim. It felt like a clear cut case of Gaiman being allowed to publish something just because he wanted to, not because it needed or deserved to be.
Razorblade Tears by SA Crosby - Crosby proves he’s one of the top voices in crime fiction. An absolutely stellar read. Will make you laugh, cry and think. He has a handle on both protagonists and knows exactly how he’s going to tell this story.
The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks - I really am trying to do better as a man and develop a healthy concept of masculinity. bell hooks lays it out so beautifully here. This was the book I wish I could hand to myself in my early-20s, a time in which I was reforming my views, questioning everything, and growing but unsure of how to grow.
The Night the Lights Went Out by Drew Magary - Heartbreakingly beautiful tale of love, disability, and recovery from one of my favorite writers.
The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding In His Times by Francis Russell - Maybe not the worst book I’ve read but it is a PAINFUL SLOG. I still contend Harding lived a fascinating life in fascinating times but this book tries to make it sound as boring as possible. Some day, someone will write a decent tale on his presidency.
Ararat by Christopher Golden - I’m still so mad about this book, two months later.
Lisey’s Story by Stephen King
The Rose Code by Kate Quinn - Outstanding historical fiction about WWII, even for those people tired of reading about WWII.
The Man Who Dies Twice by Richard Osman - Great cozy mystery.
Poison for Breakfast by Lemony Snickert - A treat for adults from a great children’s author.
Born a Crime by Noah Trevor - Read this book if you want to really dislike a famous person.
Morning Glory Milking Farm by CM Nascosta - This was definitely one of my biggest surprises of the year. It has a terrible cover, but don’t let that fool you. It’s well written, lovely, funny, a commentary on societal norms, and even managed to me interested (at least for this book) in a kink that isn’t usually mine. I can’t recommend it enough.
Hornet Flight by Ken Follett - While not a new release, it was a Follett I hadn’t read previously. Really excellent suspense set in a lesser known corner (for U.S. readers) of World War II.
Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade - Late to the party, as per usual, but I really loved this one. I especially loved seeing people of size represented in a fun and sexy way.
Ice Planet Barbarians by Ruby Dixon - Was this the absolute worst book I read this year? Debatable, but it was certainly my least favorite. Or maybe biggest disappointment fits better with those 2000 5-star reviews on Amazon.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds, and Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake - Seriously, my favorite book of the year was about fungi. I don’t care whether you’ve never read a book about nature in your life. Entangled Life will ensorcel you with tales of carnivorous mushrooms, zombie fungi, acid trips, and superhero microorganisms that could end up saving the planet. And if that isn’t enough, the author’s name is Merlin Sheldrake. Resistance is futile.
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See - The Island of Sea Women does everything historical fiction should do. It brings a piece of under-appreciated history and culture to life through a compelling tale of friendship and perseverance. Add to that beautiful writing and strong female characters, and you have a 5-star novel.
Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz - Anthony Horowitz continues to delight me with his mysteries. I was surprised when I learned that there was a sequel to Magpie Murders, the clever mystery-within-a-mystery, and I wondered how Horowitz could make that format work again using the same characters. To my tremendous joy, he constructed an equally triumphant (maybe even better) sequel.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley - That the mystery is very simple didn’t bother me. Even a simple mystery can be fun if the characters are compelling, or the dialogue is clever, or the writing is strong. The Guest List fails on all accounts.
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad - Gorgeously worded and haunting book that looks at every angle of the refugee crisis.
Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Giles - Giles paints landscapes with words. I can get behind geography as a character.
A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas - Sexy fairy shenanigans with a host of characters worth spending time with. Plus…series! (This is the 2nd book and my favorite . Haven’t read the most recent book yet.)
An Offer From a Gentleman by Julia Quinn - This book made me so angry. No offer or gentleman found here. I can forgive a lot of cringey and egregious male behavior in historical romances but this was too much. I choose to pretend that this book does not exist in the Bridgerton series. It is dead to me.
Can also I bend the rules with an honorable mention? Despite my hatred of the book that shall not be named again, The Bridgerton series was delightful and reading them finally yanked me out of my pandemic-induced reading ennui. They were the page turners that got me out of my own head.
The Devil Comes Courting by Courtney Milan - This is the book Courtney Milan has been working up to completing for years now, and it was well worth the wait and the occasional not-so-great novel to get there. Absolutely stunning work.
Battle Royal by Lucy Parker - I don’t understand why this isn’t on pretty much all Best of 2021 lists, on romance blogs, and otherwise. Such a lovely, emotionally resonant book.
Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert - For the second year in a row, one of Talia Hibbert’s romances is included in my top 3. This book has not one, but two neurodivergent protagonists, and their way towards a happy ending was delightful.
Dancing at Midnight by Julia Quinn - This is one of Julia Quinn’s earliest romances, and anyone wanting to search through her backlist because they enjoyed the Bridgerton books would do well to avoid it. Not awful, just not very good.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi - It was hard to pick between Transcendent Kingdom and Homegoing to include on this list. Homegoing is much grander in scope and hits any more themes than Transcendent Kingdom, but ultimately the treatment of losing one’s faith in the South in Transcendent Kingdom hit too close to the chest for me not to select it as my number one.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas - Believe trans youth. Trust trans youth. Protect trans youth.
Yadriel is trans boy trying to establish himself in the magical masculine traditions of his Latinx family. He accidently summons and falls in love with a ghost name Julian. Together, they try to find a way for Julian to move on and solve the mystery of who killed one of Yadriel’s family members. Both Yadriel and Julian are wonderful characters who are bursting from the page. Thomas also does an excellent job of subverting expectations and tropes throughout the book.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune - Just a very sweet and heartfelt book about coming into one’s own and not judging others based on first impressions. Linus Baker is a case worker in charge of making sure that magical youth in the foster system are safe and that those around them are safe. He gets assigned to a most unusual case with the strangest set of children and the oddest caretaker he has ever encountered. The less you know about the children prior to reading, the better. Klune focuses on self-acceptance throughout the book and he handles that theme deftly. There’s not a drop of toxic-positivity in the book. The characters go on journeys of analyzing the good and bad about the themselves and do the work of improving the bad as best as they can. If you’re looking for an LGBTQIA+ book that doesn’t focus on the trauma of being queer, I can’t recommend this one enough.
My Absolute Daring by Gabriel Tallent - TW: for just about everything. Language, child abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, gun violence, and threats of violence.
Turtle is a 14-year-old girl with no friends who lives in a dilapidated house with her father out in the woods. He abuses her in a myriad of ways. Author Gabriel Tallent does not write these abuses with any level of sympathy or care for the abused. He is cold and detached in his writing, yet the details that are included are brutal. This is a 14-year-old we’re dealing with! I have no problem with authors writing about difficult topics and events, but this isn’t how you do it.
Honorable mentions for best book go to:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner - I do NOT understand why so many people like, let alone love, this book. I do not understand how or why it was even published.
I read sooo many awesome books this year. Please forgive this long list of runner’s up (and I left a lot off!):
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
Dial A For Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto
Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano
Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall
The Teixcalaan duology by Arkady Martine
The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
Act Your Age
Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert
Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
Night Watch and Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz
The Tawny Man trilogy by Robin Hobb
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik
The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
All the Feels by Olivia Dade
Cackle by Rachel Harrison
Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey
and Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson.
Broken by Lauren Layne - This is what you get when you go to Reddit for book recommendations. This is a fairly by the numbers Beauty and the Beast retelling, only Layne amps UP the creepiness without fully committing to just writing a dark romance and significantly tones down Belle’s general awesomeness from a caring daughter, avid reader, and imaginative adventure seeker, to a white supremacist, dimwitted spoiled brat. The only reason I finished this book was that it took me too long to realize that this was not just a clever reversal where actually the brooding shut in ISN’T the monster.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida
The Hare by Melanie Finn
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
A Deadly Education/The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik - I counted these as one since I devoured them back-to-back.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab - I loaned & gifted this to friends all year, and was jealous of each and every one of them because they were getting to read this book for the first time.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood - This is the book I haven’t stopped thinking about since I finished it. I guarantee it is unlike anything else you’ve read this year.
Lisey’s Story by Stephen King - I am a Constant Reader but this was just not Uncle Stevie’s best.
Shout outs to books I didn’t have time to review but loved:
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Blood World by Chris Mooney
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
And one book that I DNF and really, really couldn’t stand: Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano
Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha - If you’re interested in near-future sci-fi/fantasy stories with library loving protagonists fighting evil corporations, go read this immediately. Also highly recommend this to Dark Angel or Orphan Black fans.
How to Date Your Dragon (Mystic Bayou #1) by Molly Harper - Romance and dragons, yes please! The world is hilarious and the story didn’t skimp on the heat. This book reminded me of Northern Exposure crossed with True Blood. We get the quirky local characters who just happen to be magical. Harper brings to life this world with the switching POVs between Jillian and Bael. Their chemistry was off the charts and really enjoyed their enemies to lovers romance. The murder mystery was an added bonus that brought them together.
White Hot by Ilona Andrews - I love this Hidden Legacy series. Magic, a mystery, and romantic tension. Ilona Andrews always hits the spot. Thank you to Malin for gifting me these for CBR 12 Book Exchange.
Pleasure Unbound Demonica #1 by Larissa Ione - If you’re not into spice, this is not a book for you. It’s not erotica, but the sex demon protagonist has sex on the brain. In theory, it makes sense, but I was hoping for a tad more subtlety in this book. Here we have a doctor who is trying to save someone while thinking about sleeping with them. It was a lot for the beginning of the book. Tayla comes off way too naive and brainwashed for me. I stuck with it but did put it down a few times out of frustration. She is shocked a group of demon-killers would betray her after keeping secrets from her for years?!
Broken Harbor by Tana French
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton - This one fell into a review black hole for me and I wasn’t able to get to it. It is however an outstanding, twist-your-brain-into-a-pretzel story. Part Quantum Leap, part Agatha Christie, part Groundhog Day, part Scream. It almost defies description but is still incredibly good. A man with amnesia learns he has 8 days to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle on a secluded estate. At the end of every day, the day resets with him in a different body but he retains knowledge from the day before. Who he is, why this is happening, and who is controlling the forces aligned against him are only a few of the mysteries in this mind blowing thriller.
Saving Grace by Debbie Babitt - This book showed me there is a worse thriller writer than Ruth Ware.
My honorable mention goes to “Into the Drowning Deep” by Mira Grant. I loved this book but never wrote the review. I may still try. The logline is “Mermaids are real and predators.” It’s a very fun monster outing.
Nixonland and Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein - These are two books, but they feel very much like parts 1 and 2. It’s a history of the modern Republican party as it was completely taken over by the far right conservative movements in the late 1950s through the 1964 election. The second book picks up with Nixon seeing the writing on the wall and morphing himself into an arch-right ideologue in his run for the 1968 presidential election.
The Power Broker by Robert Caro - Probably the only 1100 page book I’ve ever read where something infuriating and audacious happens on almost every single page. The architect of the New York City landscape and a complete tyrant (always unelected) who held unimaginable sway and power from the 1920s through the 1960s.
Various short works by Annie Ernaux - Annie Ernaux writes tightly focused and deeply interior biographies and memoirs about her life, the life of her parents, and the lives of the French middle class of the mid to late 20th century and early 21st century. Every one of these short works is stellar, but the obvious standout is Happening, about a college aged Ernaux seeking an illegal abortion in the early 1960s.
Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild - This book both buys into and sets the tone for the “economic anxiety” nonsense that followed the 2016 election. It’s deeply insulting to those of us who grew up in these same places, under these same circumstances, and didn’t choose to be evil asses.
Gold Diggers: a Novel by Sanjena Sathian - It’s not the lowest rated book I read this year, but it’s definitely the one I was most irate over! Amusingly, my most popular review on Goodreads as well
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block - The sixth book in Block’s series about the boozy ex-cop turned detective, Matt Scudder. Gritty, but compelling, full of loads of NYC circa 1970 references. One of his best.
The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö - I read all of the 10 books that make up the Martin Beck crime series, but this was one of my favorites. It has a stunning opening - on a snowy night a gunman, wielding a sub-machine gun, boards a commuter bus and systematically kills everyone aboard and then disappears.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale - A strange true story of a woman plagues by Poltergeist-like occurrences.
The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann - Boring, unsympathetic protagonist. I’m really not sure what Susann wanted the book to say except that the NYC glam life isn’t all its cracked up to be.
Post below if you read something this year that you want to spread the word about, good or bad, and consider signing up for Cannonball Read 14. Join a fabulous, supportive, book-loving team, and start kicking cancer’s ass in 2022.
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